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NFL Tackles the Wow Factor

Now that HD has become the norm rather than the exception for the NFL, broadcasters are looking for the next big thing to entice viewers; and many think they've found it in new high-speed cameras.

Cited by one broadcast exec as the latest "wow" factor, these cameras are expected to provide a more "in-your-face" view of the players and a sharper view of the action.

CBS Sports, which used high-speed cameras for Super Bowl XLI in 2007, may use a Vision Research Phantom digital high-speed camera at the reverse 50 position during playoff games, according to Ken Aagaard, CBS Sports vice president of operations and production.

Vision Research's Phantom digital high-speed camera was reincarnated as X-Mo for Fox's coverage of Super Bowl XLIIFox, likewise, will tap Vision Research technology to cover big match ups, said Jerry Steinberg, senior vice president of operations for FoxSports.

"The latest version of their device looks really good," he said.

During the NFL pre-season games, the Phantom was stationed in Beijing, covering the Olympics for NBC. Also referred to as "the Super Bowl camera X-Mo V5," with a nod to Fox's signature X-Mo branding used at this year's Super Bowl, it is based on Vision Research's V10.1 technology, according to Jeff Silverman, founder and owner of Inertia Unlimited, the Jacksonville, Vt.-based company that developed Vision Research.

According to Silverman, an X-Mo V6, based on Vision Research V12 technology, is in the works. Its new features would include greater light sensitivity and dedicated uninterrupted live and replay output (so that the camera could be used live as well as for replay), and a new dedicated replay controller.

A spokesman for NBC, which has broadcast rights to this season's Super Bowl, confirmed that it was adding the "X-Mo" camera to its NFL repertoire. In addition, he said SportsMedia Technology Corp. was supplying the network with a new "first-and-ten" application as well as upgrading its IT tech to pan-and-zoom replays.


ESPN decided to go with a rival high-speed format: two NAC Imaging Hi Motion 600 fps cameras provided by Fletcher Chicago. The network tested them at the Aug. 18 preseason game between the Cleveland Browns and New York Giants at the Meadowlands.

"We're going to put one on the 50-yard line [close to the announcers' booth]," said Steve Carter, ESPN's senior manager of Event Operations for NFL.

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This season, ESPN is using Sportvision's Player Tracking feature (L) to create new statistical categories and information, such as distance run, dynamic speed, and separation from the defensive player. Sportvision's "Quarterback Cone" analysis tool (R) illustrates how a quarterback finds an open receiver.
The second camera would be paired with a 60 fps Thomson LDK8000 supplied by Pittsburgh-based NEP Broadcasting, and travel along the sidelines behind the bench area.

This decision required ESPN to revamp one of the Chapman/Leonard Olympian dollies that it has used for years to carry a single camera goal-to-goal along the same path.

"We've taken the platform off, put a bar where that platform was, and put in two seats with two turrets for the cameras," Carter said.

For "NFL Monday Night Football" producer Jay Rothman, the high-speed cameras are "where we roll the dice on the wow." Adding a high-speed option at the 50-yard line will provide "a better angle to see somebody catching the ball on the far sideline—as well as a different perspective on a passing play: a little bit more in the pocket with the quarterback."

The show's director, Chip Dean, pointed out that the high-speed cameras "eliminate motion blur, so that you can see a ball going out of bounds, or [better appreciate] the artistic catch by someone like [New York Giants Wide Receiver] David Tyree."

As for the sideline vehicle, Dean said his crew would probably concentrate its high speed camera on the quarterback and ball path, while the LDK8000 takes on the main coverage plan.

"The NAC is limited because it needs so much light to capture at 300 to 600 frames," said Dean.

Greg Logan(L) operates the NAC Imaging HiMotion high-speed camera while Todd Marshall runs the Thomson Grass Valley LDK8000 on ESPN's Chapman/Leonard Olympian dolly during a Monday Night Football preseason game.BEYOND HIGH SPEED

Carter also noted that this season's coverage would include two 180-frame Sony Super Slo-mos rented from Bexel, which would be used on the near and far side of the action. The crew plans to mount the nearside model on a high hat platform to try out a 42x lens (versus the usual 21x multiplier).

In addition, he said, Aerial Video System will supply solutions for two wireless cameras—one handheld and one on a Steadicam—that enable operation in a 6.5-7 GHz range.

"A lot of people are operating legally and illegally in the 2-gig band, and it's getting very congested," said AVS owner Randy Hermes. "Moving to 7-gig alleviates that problem."

To do this, AVS created a very compact system integrating Link Research's L1500 HD/SD transmitter with Thomson's LDK6000 camera with a Viper FilmStream camera back (instead of the much heavier traditional triax back). The advantage of the L1500 is that the operator can change the transmitter's RF modules to operate in bands ranging from frequencies of 1.95 GHz to 7.5 GHz, according to Link Research; the AVS app has the capability to do that plus operate in the 1.4-1.5 GHz band, according to Hermes.


Based on feedback from fans during the off-season, ESPN decided to reduce the amount of on-screen graphics, "getting out of the business of lower third graphics altogether" in an attempt to "give the screen back to the fan," said Rothman.

This new look, the brainchild of Mike "Spike" Szykowny, senior director of ESPN's Creative Services, uses Vizrt's Transition Login within the scenes. ESPN's Emerging Technologies Group is building a customized front-end application to automate the graphics and play-out, Szykowny said.

ESPN also plans to turn the virtual tracking it experimented with last year into a focal point through a deal with Sportvision. Last season ESPN tracked the ball; this season it will track the quarterback, according to Dean.

"Feature Tracker uses a combination of manual and auto tracking technology to track various players on the field," said Reuben Halper, senior coordinating producer for Sportvision. "Additionally, we provide analysis tools such as the Quarterback Cone." The QC illustrates how a quarterback finds an open receiver.

The auto tracking technology uses optical recognition and pattern matching algorithms developed in-house, said Halper. Manual tracking is provided by an on-site operator who runs the Feature Tracker system during the game, alongside an associate producer, in one of the ESPN Monday Night Football trucks, he added.